Review: Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science (Alan Sokal, Jean Bricmont)

Fashionable Nonsense, Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science – Alan Sokal, Jean Bricmont ebook download pdf free


The book contains the best single chapter on filosofy of science that iv com across. very much recommended, especially for those that dont like filosofers’ accounts of things. alot of the rest of the book is devoted to long quotes full of nonsens, and som explanations of why it is nonsens (if possible), or just som explanatory remarks about the fields invoked (say, relativity).


as such, this book is a must read for ppl who ar interested in the study of seudoscience, and those interested in meaningless language use. basically, it is a collection of case studies of that.






[footnote] Bertrand Russell (1948, p. 196) tells the following amusing story: “I once received a

letter from an eminent logician, Mrs Christine Ladd Franklin, saying that she was a

solipsist, and was surprised that there were not others”. We learned this reference

from Devitt (1997, p. 64).





The answer, of course, is that we have no proof; it is simply

a perfectly reasonable hypothesis. The most natural way to ex­

plain the persistence of our sensations (in particular, the un­

pleasant ones) is to suppose that they are caused by agents

outside our consciousness. We can almost always change at will

the sensations that are pure products of our imagination, but we

cannot stop a war, stave off a lion, or start a broken-down car

by pure thought alone. Nevertheless— and it is important to em­

phasize this—this argument does not refute solipsism. If anyone

insists that he is a “harpsichord playing solo” (Diderot), there is

no way to convince him of his error. However, we have never

met a sincere solipsist and we doubt that any exist.52 This illus­

trates an important principle that we shall use several times in

this chapter: the mere fact that an idea is irrefutable does not

imply that there is any reason to believe it is true.


i wonder how that epistemological point (that arguments from ignorance ar no good) works with intuitionism in math/logic?



The universality of Humean skepticism is also its weakness.

Of course, it is irrefutable. But since no one is systematically

skeptical (when he or she is sincere) with respect to ordinary

knowledge, one ought to ask why skepticism is rejected in that

domain and why it would nevertheless be valid when applied

elsewhere, for instance, to scientific knowledge. Now, the rea­

son why we reject systematic skepticism in everyday life is

more or less obvious and is similar to the reason we reject solip­

sism. The best way to account for the coherence of our experi­

ence is to suppose that the outside world corresponds, at least

approximately, to the image of it provided by our senses.54


54 4This hypothesis receives a deeper explanation with the subsequent development of

science, in particular of the biological theory of evolution. Clearly, the possession of

sensory organs that reflect more or less faithfully the outside world (or, at least,

some important aspects of it) confers an evolutionary advantage. Let us stress that

this argument does not refute radical skepticism, but it does increase the coherence

of the anti-skeptical worldview.


the authors ar surprisingly sofisticated filosofically, and i agree very much with their reasoning.



For my part, I have no doubt that, although progressive changes

are to be expected in physics, the present doctrines are likely to be

nearer to the truth than any rival doctrines now before the world.

Science is at no moment quite right, but it is seldom quite wrong,

and has, as a rule, a better chance of being right than the theories

of the unscientific. It is, therefore, rational to accept it


—Bertrand Russell, My Philosophical Development

(1995 [1959], p. 13)


yes, the analogy is that: science is LIKE a limit function that goes towards 1 [approximates closer to truth] over time. at any given x, it is not quite at y=1 yet, but it gets closer. it might not be completely monotonic either (and i dont know if that completely breaks the limit function, probably doesnt).


for a quick grafical illustration, try the function f(x)=1-(-1/x) on the interval [1;∞]. The truth line is f(x)=1 on the interval [0;∞]. in reality, the graf wud be mor unsteady and not completely monotonic corresponding to the varius theories as they com and go in science. it is not only a matter of evidence (which is not an infallible indicator of truth either), but it is primarily a function of that.



Once the general problems of solipsism and radical skepti­

cism have been set aside, we can get down to work. Let us sup­

pose that we are able to obtain some more-or-less reliable

knowledge of the world, at least in everyday life. We can then

ask: To what extent are our senses reliable or not? To answer

this question, we can compare sense impressions among them­

selves and vary certain parameters of our everyday experience.

We can map out in this way, step by step, a practiced rationality.

When this is done systematically and with sufficient precision,

science can begin.


For us, the scientific method is not radically different from

the rational attitude in everyday life or in other domains of hu­

man knowledge. Historians, detectives, and plumbers—indeed,

all human beings—use the same basic methods of induction,

deduction, and assessment of evidence as do physicists or bio­

chemists. Modem science tries to carry out these operations in

a more careful and systematic way, by using controls and sta­

tistical tests, insisting on replication, and so forth. Moreover,

scientific measurements are often much more precise than

everyday observations; they allow us to discover hitherto un­

known phenomena; and they often conflict with “common

sense”. But the conflict is at the level of conclusions, not the

basic approach.55 56


55For example: Water appears to us as a continuous fluid, but chemical and physical

experiments teach us that it is made of atoms.


56Throughout this chapter, we stress the methodological continuity between scientific

knowledge and everyday knowledge. This is, in our view, the proper way to respond

to various skeptical challenges and to dispel the confusions generated by radical

interpretations of correct philosophical ideas such as the underdetermination of

theories by data. But it would be naive to push this connection too far. Science—

particularly fundamental physics— introduces concepts that are hard to grasp

intuitively or to connect directly to common-sense notions. (For example: forces

acting instantaneously throughout the universe in Newtonian mechanics,

electromagnetic fields “vibrating” in vacuum in Maxwell’s theory, curved space-time

in Einstein’s general relativity.) And it is in discussions about the meaning o f these

theoretical concepts that various brands of realists and anti-realists (e.g.,

intrumentalists, pragmatists) tend to part company. Relativists sometimes tend to fall

back on instrumentalist positions when challenged, but there is a profound difference

between the two attitudes. Instrumentalists may want to claim either that we have no

way of knowing whether “unobservable” theoretical entities really exist, or that their

meaning is defined solely through measurable quantities; but this does not imply that

they regard such entities as “subjective” in the sense that their meaning would be

significantly influenced by extra-scientific factors (such as the personality of the

individual scientist or the social characteristics o f the group to which she belongs).

Indeed, instrumentalists may regard our scientific theories as, quite simply, the most

satisfactory way that the human mind, with its inherent biological limitations, is

capable of understanding the world.


right they ar



Having reached this point in the discussion, the radical skep­

tic or relativist will ask what distinguishes science from other

types of discourse about reality—religions or myths, for exam­

ple, or pseudo-sciences such as astrology—and, above all, what

criteria are used to make such a distinction. Our answer is nu-

anced. First of all, there are some general (but basically nega­

tive) epistemological principles, which go back at least to the

seventeenth century: to be skeptical of a priori arguments, rev­

elation, sacred texts, and arguments from authority. Moreover,

the experience accumulated during three centuries of scientific

practice has given us a series of more-or-less general method­

ological principles—for example, to replicate experiments, to

use controls, to test medicines in double-blind protocols—that

can be justified by rational arguments. However, we do not

claim that these principles can be codified in a definitive way,

nor that the list is exhaustive. In other words, there does not

exist (at least at present) a complete codification of scientific ra­

tionality, and we seriously doubt that one could ever exist. After

all, the future is inherently unpredictable; rationality is always

an adaptation to a new situation. Nevertheless—and this is the

main difference between us and the radical skeptics—we think

that well-developed scientific theories are in general supported

by good arguments, but the rationality of those arguments must

be analyzed case-by-case.60


60 It is also by proceeding on a case-by-case basis that one can appreciate the

immensity of the gulf separating the sciences from the pseudo-sciences.


Sokal and Bricmont might soon becom my new favorit filosofers of science.



Obviously, every induction is an inference from the observed to

the unobserved, and no such inference can be justified using

solely deductive logic. But, as we have seen, if this argument

were to be taken seriously—if rationality were to consist only

of deductive logic— it would imply also that there is no good

reason to believe that the Sun will rise tomorrow, and yet no one

really expects the Sun not to rise.


id like to add, like i hav don many times befor, that ther is no reason to think that induction shud be proveable with deduction. why require that? but now coms the interesting part. if one takes induction as the basis instead of deduction, one can inductivly prove deduction. <prove> in the ordinary, non-mathetical/logical sens. the method is enumerativ induction, which i hav discussed befor.



But one may go further. It is natural to introduce a hierarchy

in the degree of credence accorded to different theories, de­

pending on the quantity and quality of the evidence supporting

them.95 Every scientist—indeed, every human being—proceeds

in this way and grants a higher subjective probability to the

best-established theories (for instance, the evolution of species

or the existence of atoms) and a lower subjective probability to

more speculative theories (such as detailed theories of quantum

gravity). The same reasoning applies when comparing theories

in natural science with those in history or sociology. For exam­

ple, the evidence of the Earth’s rotation is vastly stronger than

anything Kuhn could put forward in support of his historical

theories. This does not mean, of course, that physicists are more

clever than historians or that they use better methods, but sim­

ply that they deal with less complex problems, involving a

smaller number of variables which, moreover, are easier to mea­

sure and to control. It is impossible to avoid introducing such a

hierarchy in our beliefs, and this hierarchy implies that there is

no conceivable argument based on the Kuhnian view of history

that could give succor to those sociologists or philosophers who

wish to challenge, in a blanket way, the reliability of scientific



Sokal and Bricmont even get the epistemological point about the different fields right. color me very positivly surprised.



Bruno Latour and His Rules of Method

The strong programme in the sociology of science has found

an echo in France, particularly around Bruno Latour. His works

contain a great number of propositions formulated so ambigu­

ously that they can hardly be taken literally. And when one re­

moves the ambiguity— as we shall do here in a few

examples— one reaches the conclusion that the assertion is ei­

ther true but banal, or else surprising but manifestly false.


sound familiar? its the good old two-faced sentences again, those that Swartz and Bradley called Janus-sentences. they yield two different interpretations, one trivial and true, one nontrivial and false. their apparent plausibility is becus of this fact.


quoting from Possible Worlds:


Janus-faced sentences

The method of possible-worlds testing is not only an invaluable aid towards resolving ambiguity; it is also an effective weapon against a particular form of-linguistic sophistry.

Thinkers often deceive themselves and others into supposing that they have discovered a profound

truth about the universe when all they have done is utter what we shall call a “Janus-faced

sentence”. Janus, according to Roman mythology, was a god with two faces who was therefore able

to ‘face’ in two directions at once. Thus, by a “Janus-faced sentence” we mean a sentence which, like “In the evolutionary struggle for existence just the fittest species survive”, faces in two directions. It is ambiguous insofar as it may be used to express a noncontingent proposition, e.g., that in the struggle for existence just the surviving species survive, and may also be used to express a contingent proposition, e.g., the generalization that just the physically strongest species survive.


If a token of such a sentence-type is used to express a noncontingently true proposition then, of

course, the truth of that proposition is indisputable; but since, in that case, it is true in all possible

worlds, it does not tell us anything distinctive about the actual world. If, on the other hand, a token

of such a sentence-type is used to express a contingent proposition, then of course that proposition

does tell us something quite distinctive about the actual world; but in that case its truth is far from

indisputable. The sophistry lies in supposing that the indisputable credentials of the one proposition

can be transferred to the other just by virtue of the fact that one sentence-token might be used to

express one of these propositions and a different sentence-token of one and the same sentence-type

might be used to express the other of these propositions. For by virtue of the necessary truth of one

of these propositions, the truth of the other — the contingent one — can be made to seem

indisputable, can be made to seem, that is, as if it “stands to reason” that it should be true.



We could be accused here of focusing our attention on an

ambiguity of formulation and of not trying to understand what

Latour really means. In order to counter this objection, let us go

back to the section “Appealing (to) Nature” (pp. 94-100) where

the Third Rule is introduced and developed. Latour begins by

ridiculing the appeal to Nature as a way of resolving scientific

controversies, such as the one concerning solar neutrinos[121]:

A fierce controversy divides the astrophysicists who calcu­

late the number o f neutrinos coming out o f the sun and Davis,

the experimentalist who obtains a much smaller figure. It is

easy to distinguish them and put the controversy to rest. Just

let us see for ourselves in which camp the sun is really to be

found. Somewhere the natural sun with its true number o f

neutrinos will close the mouths o f dissenters and force them

to accept the facts no matter how well written these papers

were. (Latour 1987, p. 95)



Why does Latour choose to be ironic? The problem is to know

how many neutrinos are emitted by the Sun, and this question

is indeed difficult. We can hope that it will be resolved some day,

not because “the natural sun will close the mouths of dis­

senters”, but because sufficiently powerful empirical data will

become available. Indeed, in order to fill in the gaps in the cur­

rently available data and to discriminate between the currently

existing theories, several groups of physicists have recently

built detectors of different types, and they are now performing

the (difficult) measurements.122 It is thus reasonable to expect

that the controversy will be settled sometime in the next few

years, thanks to an accumulation of evidence that, taken to­

gether, will indicate clearly the correct solution. However, other

scenarios are in principle possible: the controversy could die

out because people stop being interested in the issue, or be­

cause the problem turns out to be too difficult to solve; and, at

this level, sociological factors undoubtedly play a role (if only

because of the budgetary constraints on research). Obviously,

scientists think, or at least hope, that if the controversy is re­

solved it will be because of observations and not because of

the literary qualities of the scientific papers. Otherwise, they

will simply have ceased to do science.


the footnode 121 is:

The nuclear reactions that power the Sun are expected to emit copious quantities

of the subatomic particle called the neutrino. By combining current theories of solar

structure, nuclear physics, and elementary-particle physics, it is possible to obtain

quantitative predictions for the flux and energy distribution of the solar neutrinos.

Since the late 1960s, experimental physicists, beginning with the pioneering work of

Raymond Davis, have been attempting to detect the solar neutrinos and measure their

flux. The solar neutrinos have in fact been detected; but their flux appears to be less

than one-third o f the theoretical prediction. Astrophysicists and elementary-particle

physicists are actively trying to determine whether the discrepancy arises from

experimental error or theoretical error, and if the latter, whether the failure is in the

solar models or in the elementary-particle models. For an introductory overview, see

Bahcall (1990).


this problem sounded familiar to me.

The solar neutrino problem was a major discrepancy between measurements of the numbers of neutrinos flowing through the Earth and theoretical models of the solar interior, lasting from the mid-1960s to about 2002. The discrepancy has since been resolved by new understanding of neutrino physics, requiring a modification of the Standard Model of particle physics – specifically, neutrino oscillation. Essentially, as neutrinos have mass, they can change from the type that had been expected to be produced in the Sun’s interior into two types that would not be caught by the detectors in use at the time.


science seems to be working. Sokal and Bricmont predicted that it wud be resolved ”in the next few years”. this was written in 1997, about 5 years befor the data Wikipedia givs for the resolution. i advice one to read the Wiki article, as it is quite good.



In this quote and the previous one, Latour is playing con­

stantly on the confusion between facts and our knowledge of

them.123 The correct answer to any scientific question, solved or

not, depends on the state of Nature (for example, on the num­

ber of neutrinos that the Sun really emits). Now, it happens that,

for the unsolved problems, nobody knows the right answer,

while for the solved ones, we do know it (at least if the accepted

solution is correct, which can always be challenged). But there

is no reason to adopt a “relativist” attitude in one case and a “re­

alist” one in the other. The difference between these attitudes is

a philosophical matter, and is independent of whether the prob­

lem is solved or not. For the relativist, there is simply no unique

correct answer, independent of all social and cultural circum­

stances; this holds for the closed questions as well as for the

open ones. On the other hand, the scientists who seek the cor­

rect solution are not relativist, almost by definition. Of course

they do “use Nature as the external referee”: that is, they seek to

know what is really happening in Nature, and they design ex­

periments for that purpose.


the footnote 123 is:

An even more extreme example o f this confusion appears in a recent article by

Latour in La Recherche, a French monthly magazine devoted to the popularization of

science (Latour 1998). Here Latour discusses what he interprets as the discovery in

1976, by French scientists working on the mummy of the pharaoh Ramses II, that his

death (circa 1213 B.C.) was due to tuberculosis. Latour asks: “How could he pass

away due to a bacillus discovered by Robert Koch in 1882?” Latour notes, correctly,

that it would be an anachronism to assert that Rainses II was killed by machine-gun

fire or died from the stress provoked by a stock-market crash. But then, Latour

wonders, why isn’t death from tuberculosis likewise an anachronism? He goes so far

as to assert that “Before Koch, the bacillus has no real existence.” He dismisses the

common-sense notion that Koch discovered a pre-existing bacillus as “having only the

appearance o f common sense”. Of course, in the rest o f the article, Latour gives no

argument to justify these radical claims and provides no genuine alternative to the

common-sense answer. He simply stresses the obvious fact that, in order to discover

the cause of Ramses’ death, a sophisticated analysis in Parisian laboratories was

needed. But unless Latour is putting forward the truly radical claim that nothing we

discover ever existed prior to its “discovery”— in particular, that no murderer is a

murderer, in the sense that he committed a crime before the police “discovered” him

to be a murderer— he needs to explain what is special about bacilli, and this he has

utterly failed to do. The result is that Latour is saying nothing clear, and the article

oscillates between extreme banalities and blatant falsehoods.





a quote from one of the crazy ppl:


The privileging o f solid over fluid mechanics, and indeed the

inability o f science to deal with turbulent flow at all, she at­

tributes to the association o f fluidity with femininity. Whereas

men have sex organs that protrude and become rigid, women

have openings that leak menstrual blood and vaginal fluids.

Although men, too, flow on occasion— when semen is emit­

ted, for example— this aspect o f their sexuality is not empha­

sized. It is the rigidity o f the male organ that counts, not its

complicity in fluid flow. These idealizations are reinscribed in

mathematics, which conceives o f fluids as laminated planes

and other modified solid forms. In the same way that women

are erased within masculinist theories and language, existing

only as not-men, so fluids have been erased from science, ex­

isting only as not-solids. From this perspective it is no wonder

that science has not been able to arrive at a successful model

for turbulence. The problem o f turbulent f low cannot be

solved because the conceptions o f fluids (and o f women)

have been formulated so as necessarily to leave unarticulated

remainders. (Hayles 1992, p. 17)


u cant make this shit up



Over the past three decades, remarkable progress has been

made in the mathematical theory of chaos, but the idea that

some physical systems may exhibit a sensitivity to initial con­

ditions is not new. Here is what James Clerk Maxwell said in

1877, after stating the principle of determinism ( “the same

causes will always produce the same effects”):


but thats not what determinism is. their quote seems to be from Hume’s Treatise.


it is mentioned in his discussion of causality, which is related to but not the same as, determinism.


Wikipedia givs a fine definition of <determinism>: ”Determinism is a philosophy stating that for everything that happens there are conditions such that, given those conditions, nothing else could happen.”


also SEP: Causal determinism is, roughly speaking, the idea that every event is necessitated by antecedent events and conditions together with the laws of nature.”



[T]he first difference between science and philosophy is their

respective attitudes toward chaos. Chaos is defined not so

much by its disorder as by the infinite speed with which every

form taking shape in it vanishes. It is a void that is not a noth­

ingness but a virtual, containing all possible particles and

drawing out all possible forms, which spring up only to dis­

appear immediately, without consistency or reference, with­

out consequence. Chaos is an infinite speed o f birth and dis­

appearance. (Deleuze and Guattari 1994, pp. 117-118, italics

in the original)





For what it’s worth, electrons, unlike photons, have a non-zero

mass and thus cannot move at the speed of light, precisely

because of the theory of relativity of which Virilio seems so



i think the authors did not mean what they wrote here. surely, relativity theory is not the reason why electrons cannot move at the speed of light. relativity theory is an explanation of how nature works, in this case, how objects with mass and velocity/speed works.



We met in Paris a student who, after having brilliantly fin­

ished his undergraduate studies in physics, began reading phi­

losophy and in particular Deleuze. He was trying to tackle

Difference and Repetition. Having read the mathematical ex­

cerpts examined here (pp. 161-164), he admitted he couldn’t

see what Deleuze was driving at. Nevertheless, Deleuze’s repu­

tation for profundity was so strong that he hesitated to draw the

natural conclusion: that if someone like himself, who had stud­

ied calculus for several years, was unable to understand these

texts, allegedly about calculus, it was probably because they

didn’t make much sense. It seems to us that this example should

have encouraged the student to analyze more critically the rest

of Deleuze’s writings.


i think the epistemological conditions of this kind of inference ar very interesting. under which conditions shud one conclude that a text is meaningless?



7. Ambiguity as subterfuge. We have seen in this book nu­

merous ambiguous texts that can be interpreted in two differ­

ent ways: as an assertion that is true but relatively banal, or as

one that is radical but manifestly false. And we cannot help

thinking that, in many cases, these ambiguities are deliberate.

Indeed, they offer a great advantage in intellectual battles: the

radical interpretation can serve to attract relatively inexperi­

enced listeners or readers; and if the absurdity of this version is

exposed, the author can always defend himself by claiming to

have been misunderstood, and retreat to the innocuous inter­



mor on Janus-sentences.




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